Trip Report: Adventures on Montana’s Madison River with Tenkara USA

On February 8, 2024 • Comments (0)

I’ll be honest: I don’t usually plan on fly fishing in Montana in February. Maybe 15-20 years ago, but I can be a real homebody in winter.

This year has been a bit different. It’s been much warmer than usual, and many enjoyable days have been outside. Couple this with social media posts from friends in the area getting out and catching fish (on dry flies even), and I decided to head to the Madison River below Bear Trap Canyon. 

In the Bozeman area, we refer to this stretch as the “Lower” Madison, but the folks in West Yellowstone use that moniker for anything below Hebgen Lake. It’s a vast and open stretch of the river and not the kind of water one might immediately associate with tenkara. The holding water is not as clearly defined as in a pocket water environment, but the fish remain. I did consider taking a Western rod, but I just wanted to grab my essential tenkara gear and go.

When I got to the Madison and hopped out of my Jeep to look at the water, a few fish rose sporadically. This was in line with the reports from my friends, and I was excited to be able to target visible fish. That always helps my confidence, and it’s just plain more fun, whether you’re fishing a dry fly on the surface or a sakasa fly just under. I’ve done very well with our Takayama kebari in this situation before.

Unfortunately, not long after I spotted those feeding fish, the wind started to kick up. It wasn’t horrible by lower Madison standards, but it did put enough chop on the water that the fish went down. I checked out a couple more spots to see if I could find a nook or cranny of protected water where the fish would still rise, but no luck. If I were going to catch fish, I would have to search the subsurface. This was technically my first trip of the year, and it was February, so I’d take what I could get. 

I grabbed my Satoki rod, which has become my go-to for big water fishing with a chance of chubby fish. It’s also my favorite when I may be throwing a bit more than an unweighted wet fly. Usually, if fish aren’t on the surface this time of year, they’re on the bottom, and it’s more effective to hit them on the nose with something than ask them to move up in the water column. This meant fishing a weighted fly down deep. It’s not my favorite tactic, but I really wanted to catch my first fish of the year. I rigged up with a 13′ level line and a bead head nymph, and I attached a strike indicator as the wind would make fishing with a high rod tip difficult. I also used a bit more tippet to make it easier for the fly to sink deeply, about 5 feet of 4x tippet. I will sometimes use a tiny split shot, but a bead head will often get the fly down far enough, thanks to the excellent line control of a long tenkara rod. 

On big, flat water like the Lower Madison, the holding lies aren’t usually as easy to spot as a big pool behind a rock in a mountain stream. We look for “buckets,” usually depressions in the stream that create current breaks for the fish to hold in. These buckets typically look like a dark patch of water where the surface current slows if you look closely. It’s hard to capture them in photography, especially for me, but once you see a couple, they get easier to spot. The trick to fishing them is to make your cast upstream into the shallower water above the bucket. The current will usually grab the fly and pull it down into the deep part of the bucket without using much weight. It’s the same idea as the plunging technique in more traditional tenkara.

The first bucket I waded out to was one I hadn’t fished. I made my first cast just above the darker water and let my fly drift through, then a little farther into it, trying to visualize covering the bottom of the hole thoroughly. Nothing. Nada. Zilch. I was “cheating” and still not catching anything. I decided to try another Lower Madison standard, a small lightning bug. After a few casts, my indicator wiggled in an “un-caused by the bottom” like way, and I raised up on the rod tip. I was tight to a small brown who put up an excellent fight on the Satoki, but I quickly had him close and the tippet in hand. At this point, the fish popped off the barbless hook. I kind of wanted a picture of my first fish of the year, but the water was still pretty cold, so I was okay with the fish getting off without any handling. After that, the bucket turned off. I’m not sure if it was me, the fly, the fish, or the fish gods, but there weren’t any more takers on to another bucket.

I decided to head to an area my friend Bob had recommended. Bob is semi-retired (he builds beautiful bamboo western fly rods), fishes more than anyone I know, and is an excellent fisherman. I don’t take his recommendations lightly. But the area in question was past some islands we like to fish and was very open water. It looks more like water for a Spey rod, but a bucket is a bucket. So long as I could get close enough, I knew my trusty Satoki would allow some great drifts.

Tenkara fishing in the winter

I waded out into the open water. Rather than one bucket, there’s more of a chain of them in this stretch. It’s fun to work through them, and usually, one will be more productive than the others, although which one can change with the day. A few casts into the fist bucket, and my indicator showed a take. I lifted the rod and felt a fish. It was a great fight, but when I got it close to the surface, I saw that the fish was foul-hooked. This may be my most minor favorite aspect of indicator nymph fishing. There is no other method where I see more fish come in fouled. I always fish barbless, which makes for less harm on the fish (and less on me when a gust of wind drives a weighted nymph into my neck), but I still hate it. Luckily, I got the fish to hand quickly, and the fly popped right out of the fish’s back with minimal damage. 

I got no more strikes from that spot, so I moved up a bit. Still no takers, I tried another winter favorite on the Madison, a Crimson Annelid with a metallic thorax. A few people call it a beadhead San Juan Worm. It’s not pretty, but fish eat worms. It’s not my fault. Not long after the change, another fish was on. It was a little rainbow, fair hooked, and quickly released. After removing it, I noticed the sun was going behind the mountains, and it was getting colder out, especially on my wet hands. A front was also rolling in, but I wasn’t ready to quit yet. A few more casts, and I was into a fat rainbow. It even gave me a few jumps, which I wasn’t expecting in the cold water. It wasn’t a giant fish, but a very healthy one. Besides the jumps, it was using the room in the open water to run and doing a great job of using the current against me. I was glad to have the extra backbone provided by the Satoki and very happy to bring it to hand. I got a quick picture with my phone before releasing the fish. I had felt rusty all day, and taking photos was no exception, but it was nice to have a picture of my first nice rainbow of the year to look at when the weather turned cold again.

My first rainbow of the year

The wind continued to pick up, and the temperature dropped more. I felt guilty about leaving; it seemed like I just got there, but when I looked at my phone, I realized I’d been out for about three hours. That’s three hours more fishing than most February’s for me. I waded out of the river and leaned against my Jeep to watch the river. Perhaps the wind would die down, and the fish would start rising. Once I was satisfied that wouldn’t happen, I de-wadered and headed home. It wasn’t exactly fast fishing, but it was a charming day for this time of year, and I’m glad my tenkara gear wasn’t too buried for me to make a quick trip to the river. I hope there are a few more before Spring. Who knows, maybe I’ll become a die-hard winter fisherman again.

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Signs of Spring

On March 19, 2022 • Comments (0)


Written by Martin Montejano

The days are getting longer and the weather is warming up. It’s almost that time of year where the transition away from colder days breathes new life into nature. Along with that, we move closer to those afternoons of watching a trout snatch a fly off the top of the water, inciting the excitement that we all seek. While we may not be there just yet, we keep our eyes on the creek, ready and waiting to cast some kebari onto the water.

Continue reading

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Mushroom Walk (video)

On August 11, 2017 • Comments (5)

This video has no fishing in it, at all.
But I thought you would enjoy the video I just created. Yesterday morning, at the last day of our 3-week long book tour, I woke up in the tenkaravan next to a gorgeous forest. Those who know me will remember foraging is right up there with tenkara in terms of things I love doing. As I had coffee I felt inspired to go foraging and to film it all. Hope you enjoy it.
Mushroom Walk – by Tenkara USA

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Riverside Cooking with Clay Hayes of Backcountry Hunters and Anglers

On July 10, 2015 • Comments (2)

Here’s a very nice video created by Clay Hayes for Backcountry Hunters and Anglers. Clay goes out tenkara fishing and foraging in Idaho.

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Fishing inspiration images

On March 19, 2015 • Comments (1)

Sorry I have been very absent from posting recently. Right now I’m in the middle of a very large writing project that is consuming a lot of my time and just about all of my brain power. The business is keeping me very busy when not writing. And, when I can, I have been fishing to support the large writing project and future blog posts. But, those are just excuses! I thought you’d enjoy a few images we captured recently. Some tenkara inspiration in case you can’t go fishing right now. I have been active on our Instagram page, so please follow that if you don’t yet. More blog posts to come in the future, I promise.

Brown trout tail releaseA large brown trout is released in healthy condition. Image by Doug Heggart.
Fishing double tenkara hookupA double tenkara hookup in Wyoming.
Rainbow trout releaseA rainbow kisses the water
Paulo Coelho quote on simplicity and tenkara“Elegance is achieved when, having discarded all superfluous things, we discover simplicity and concentration. The simpler the pose, the better; the more sober, the more beautiful.” Paulo Coelho.
Long exposure fishing shotLong exposure to fishing is good for the soul
Rainbow catch and releasea rainbow tail
Fishing with araucaria trees in Argentinafishing among araucaria trees in Argentina
Large brown caught on tenkara in Wyominga great fighter caught on the North Platte in Wyoming

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Why do rivers bend?

On November 25, 2014 • Comments (1)

I spend a lot of time in streams of different types. My favorite thing about stream fishing is all the curves they present, that makes it so that every few steps there will be a different view. Yet, I admit, I don’t think I ever wondered “why do rivers bend rather than go straight?” Yesterday I ran across this cool little video that answers the question I never asked but probably always wanted to know.

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Trout Unlimited – 10 Special Places

On October 31, 2014 • Comments (1)

Trout Unlimited (TU) is an organization we have supported from our inception. Their mission is “to conserve, protect and restore North America’s coldwater fisheries and their watersheds.” For over 5 years we have continued supporting them with almost our entire 1% for the Planet commitment going to them. And, there are some superb changes happening at TU that will help spread their mission word widely. They just re-faced their website, and also just hired someone to be in charge of their video story-telling campaign (I had the pleasure of meeting him the other day and I know he will do wonders for the awareness of Trout Unlimited). These are important elements when one is trying to tell a story effectively.

The latest campaign they released is the “Ten Special Places”, which “looks at places where expanding natural gas drilling operations in the East could pose risks to fishing and hunting opportunities, and offers recommendations on what sportsmen and women can do to promote responsible energy development and ensure the protection of these areas.” 

One of these places is the George Washington and Jefferson National Forests, in the central Appalachian Mountains. That’s where we held our 2013 Tenkara Summit and it’s home to some beautiful brook trout. They made a beautiful video of the area and the challenges it faces. And, we’re happy they featured tenkara in it!

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TENKARA+ Canyoneering [VIDEO]

On April 23, 2014 • Comments (2)

One of the messages I want to spread far and wide through tenkara is that you don’t have to be a fisherman to fish, nor do you have to go on a dedicated fishing trip to enjoy fishing. Fly-fishing, and more specifically tenkara, can go with any activity you choose to enjoy.

This past weekend I put a couple of tenkara rods and some climbing equipment in my pack and flew to North Carolina to explore some canyons with the guys of Pura Vida Adventures. The canyons were expected to have plenty of water, and thus fish. The idea was to fish as time allowed and hopefully catch some of their purely wild and native brook trout. The beautiful thing about tenkara’s simplicity is that it can go with anything. And the beautiful thing about its minimal and portable nature is that it doesn’t take long to setup and fish along the way. That’s the idea of TENKARA+, tenkara plus ANYTHING.

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Raise the River

On March 19, 2014 • Comments (4)

After more than two months of attending a fly-fishing show nearly everywhere weekend, I have decided to go on a long-overdue vacation. Since moving inland to Colorado and becoming landlocked, once in a while I have missed the ocean, more specifically I have missed surfing, a sport I have enjoyed since I was 7. Don’t get me wrong, I chose to move and be closer to mountains, and I absolutely love living there. But how nice would it be if I could not only tenkara and climb when I want to, but also surf without having to fly to Nicaragua?
So, when I saw this video the other day, with Will Farrell and surf champion Kelly Slater advocating to move the ocean I couldn’t help but dream a little. And, laugh quite a bit.
But this is also a very serious message and I thought it should be shared here. The Colorado river no longer flows to its delta and the ocean. That is a very serious issue for the wildlife as well as the people who live downstream on it and no longer get much water. Checkout

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Forgiving Boulder Creek by Sasha Barajas

On February 26, 2014 • Comments (2)

Tenkara Magazine story - Forgiving Boulder CreekForgiving Boulder Creek is a story written by Sasha Barajas about her discovery of tenkara and renewed connection with Boulder Creek, which was subject to alarming floods last year. It is a feature story in the first Tenkara Magazine. The story has been receiving great feedback and we thought you’d enjoy reading it. Photographs by Kate Mason
Forgiving Boulder Creek

About a quarter-mile from the hustle and bustle of downtown Boulder, Colorado runs a small creek. In the heat of the summer giggles are frequently heard as children wade in the water and college students aboard black tire tubes float by. This autumn, with several days of heavy rain, the creek grew to monstrous proportions, enveloping the landscape and ravaging our mountain town.

Tenkara girl fly-fishing

Just one month later the creek runs swiftly within its previously defined banks. Although we have resumed biking, running, and skateboarding along the winding Boulder Creek Path, for many of us our relationship with the creek is still on the bedrocks. Continue reading

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Wild Trout (UK) Auction

On February 25, 2014 • Comments (3)

The non-profit organization Wild Trout Trust is holding an auction with some items that may be of interest to the tenkara angler. The auction will be happening from March 4-13 via Ebay, so international bidders and supporters of their organization can easily participate. Tenkara USA is a staunch supporter of the Wild Trout Trust.
From their site: “The annual auction is the most important fundraising event for us. It raises vital funds which we use to deliver practical advice and habitat work, inspiring and helping people to protect wild trout. Click here to see how we use the funds raised in the auction.”
Below are a couple of items that were donated by Dr. Ishigaki for the auction.

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7 Tenkara Videos you Must Watch

On December 3, 2013 • Comments (4)

We have put out a lot of videos since our inception in 2009. 88 to be exact. Here are 5 videos we think you must watch to learn tenkara, tenkara fly-tying, or just for your entertainment as the cold weather sets in:

1) How to cast with tenkara:

2) Tenkara Techniques:

3) Tenkara Pronunciation Guide:

4) Tenkara Knots:

4B) You may also want to watch this video on my “one knot”, used for tippet to level line and fly to tippet:

5) How to tie a tenkara fly:

6) Landing a larger fish on tenkara and long line:

7) Tenkara and Canyoneering

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Just a reminder of why we fish

On November 17, 2013 • Comments (1)

Just got back from fishing and had to share a couple of nice pictures with you. No point I want to make here except that fishing is pretty darn fun!

Here’s Salome with one of her first trout. The colors on that trout were just gorgeous.

Brown trout on tenkara

As we left the stream today we were blessed with a super view of a large full moon coming out from the horizon, perfectly in line with the mouth of the canyon. These are photos that show us why we go fishing whenever we can. Hope you’ve been enjoying it recently.

South Boulder creek Eldorado Canyon

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1 of 750 – Saving the Greenback Cutthroat

On November 11, 2013 • Comments (0)

Greenback Cutthroat on tenkara

When I caught this trout three years ago I was ecstatic. It was my first visit to Colorado. I had heard they had a very exquisite trout that was native to the state and could only be found on a few streams and lakes here. It was the greenback cutthroat. So I went looking for them. I found a stream that was known to have them and must have caught 20+ “greenbacks”. It felt good to know there was a thriving population of those fish. They were gorgeous; and, to me they served as a physical reminder of one reason Tenkara USA exists, which is to help care for environments where trout are found.

Lo and behold it turned out these were not actually greenback cutthroat as I and everyone else thought at the time. Through recent genetic testing it was discovered that the trout I caught on that trip were actually West Slope Cutthroats, a fish that, to the naked eye is actually identical to the greenbacks (which is why it took so long to discover this).

The fact they were not greenbacks did not diminish my memories nor the beauty of these fish. But, what I later discovered alarmed me a bit: there are only about 750 pure greenback cutthroat left in the world! And, they can only be found on Bear Creek, which has been called a “pity of a stream” due to the real threats it faces with erosion-prone soil, poor trails, and real human threats.

I would like to ask you for your help in protecting these 750 fish left in the wild. An Indiegogo campaign was just launched with the aim of raising money to work directly on protecting these fish. Tenkara USA has taken particular interest in this cause because it is a fish native to our new home of Colorado, but this should not mean that if you don’t live in Colorado you shouldn’t help. This project is being undertaken by a Trout Unlimited group called The Greenbacks, but I think it serves as a great example of the things that can be accomplished in protecting fish and fish habitat anywhere. It is the type of project that serves to inspire groups in other parts of the country and could be a model to future fish habitat and protection projects.

Please visit the website for more info and check out the Indiegogo campaign to pledge some money. You can get a Tenkara USA set (I’ll be changing my donation from the Iwana that is advertised to any Tenkara USA rod, including a new one that will be released soon); a Vedavoo pack with the Greenback patch, or a trip with me.


Greenbacks – Indiegogo Version from Our Sporting Heritage on Vimeo.

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Tenkara Diaries: Canyoneering, tenkara and onsen

On September 4, 2013 • Comments (10)

I decided to let the images speak for themselves in this video of an epic adventure this week. I think there are few places in the world that you can combine epic “shower climbing” as they call it here (or sawanobori) and fishing. Luckily Japan has an abundance of it. And, even more luckily Japan also has an abundance of onsen, or hot-springs, which can come in very handy when you’ve been swimming in 40 degree water all day.

P.S. I’m contemplating hosting a small group trip to Japan in 2014. This would be an opportunity to learn from some of my teachers as well as do a combo “shower climbing/tenkara” adventure trip. Let me know if that could be of interest. I’m still very much on the fence about doing it, as I’m used to traveling by myself, but this is something I’d love to share with those truly interested.

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